A Grimm Project

242 fairy tales, 242 writing prompts.

Month: May, 2014

019. The Fisherman and His Wife

*This post is part of A Grimm Project, a series of short fiction pieces using each of the Brothers Grimms’ Nursery and Household Tales as writing prompts. For more information about the project, click here. For more about the story which inspired this freewrite, click here.*

When Elerbon returned to the sea, he noticed that the long streak of blood still floated in the clear water. He sat on a rock, crossing his legs beneath him, and watched as the ribbon of red shimmered in the calm water, shuddering as the seawater lapped and bobbed in the pool.

He did not know how to call the fish, but was certain — and this made him sad — that the fish would appear nonetheless. Emilie had not always been so unhappy as to send him clamoring for wish-granting fish. Before their marriage, she had danced when the travelers played mountain songs in the pub, and this had made her happy enough to last for weeks. And even after they had exchanged vows, a festival with fresh fruit vendors selling oranges had lifted her spirits enough carry her smiles well into several months. A sunny day and the drifting sound of a neighbor child singing her favorite song gave Elerbon days of peace from Emilie, which he cherished more and more as they grew older. It was not until the same song only afforded her three minutes of happiness, which Elerbon felt passing away from them like spent coins at the grocer, that he knew she’d become like so many other women — mysteriously unhappy. Her face changed, and she laughed very little, but still he loved her. What else could he do?

The streak of blood had only just dissipated in the water. A tiny white crab the size of Elerbon’s fingernail was climbing bravely up the underside of a rock, then faltered and fell with a plop into the growing foam. Elerbon sighed. A sea wind met his sigh with salt and chill, and Elerbon stood. The fish was swimming toward him.

Cate Fricke
May 2014

Illustration by Kay Nielsen

Illustration by Kay Nielsen


Thoughts on “The Fisherman and His Wife”

“The Fisherman and His Wife” sticks out for me, among the Grimm tales. Something about it is different, and I can’t quite put my finger on what that something could be.

Maybe it’s the ironic twist at the end that comes dangerously close to an explicit moral (which most tales don’t have). Maybe it’s the fact that the wife makes six requests of the enchanted flounder rather than the usual three, drawing this tale out into almost epic proportions. Maybe it’s the intensely colorful descriptions of the state of the sea throughout the tale, which lend it a tone closer to magical realism than straight, to-the-point, fairy tale.

In fact, I think that’s pretty close, at least on a personal level: when I first read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “The Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” it reminded me not only of the tale “The Fisherman and His Wife” but also of the John B. Gruelle illustration of the tale (below), of the fisherman standing on the rocky beach, his arms flung wide in amazement. This is a tale that relishes the visual more than most fairy tales — the descriptions of the increasingly-angry sea, as well as the ever-more-ornate descriptions of the fisherman’s changing abode support the growing dread of the story. In magical realism, the environment and the aesthetic details (scuttling crabs, cloudy skies) do similar work to set the tone, whereas in fairy tales, magical realism’s undoubted predecessors, tone is usually conveyed quickly and starkly, if at all. Here are some lines in the “The Fisherman and His Wife” that set it apart, in this respect:

“He then put the fish back into the clear water, and the flounder swam to the bottom, leaving behind a long streak of blood.”

“So he went back to the sea. When he got there, the sea was very green and yellow and no longer so clear.”

“The tables sagged under the weight of food and bottles of the very best wine.”

“When he got to the sea, it was completely gray and black, and the water was twisting and turning from below and smelled putrid.”

“In the distance, the fisherman could see ships firing guns in distress as they were tossed up and down by the waves.”

All culminating in the wife’s insistence that she won’t be satisfied until the flounder makes her God, so she can cause the sun and the moon to rise.

Fairy tales feel elemental to us, and there’s no doubt that nature is often a character unto herself — places and things like woods and rivers take on ominous or helpful qualities that help convey a larger power at work than man’s. But never is that so clear than in “The Fisherman and His Wife.”

And I also get a real kick out of the man and wife and their matter-of-fact attitude in regards to her social climbing, before it’s all stripped away:

“‘Wife,’ the man said as he looked at her carefully, ‘now you’re the pope, aren’t you?’
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I’m Pope.'”

End scene.

Read the full tale as translated by D. L. Ashliman, available at Pitt.edu, and you can read my writing response here.

Illustration by John B. Gruelle

Illustration by John B. Gruelle



018. “The Straw, the Coal, and the Bean”

*This post is part of A Grimm Project, a series of short fiction pieces using each of the Brothers Grimms’ Nursery and Household Tales as writing prompts. For more information about the project, click here. For more about the story which inspired this freewrite, click here.*

There once was a poor old woman who lived in a village, and she had gathered a bunch of beans that she wanted to cook.

She set a pot to boil over a meager fire, and let the beans soak together in a crock of fresh water. Once the pot began a-bubbling, the old woman took her ladle from the wall and began spooning the beans, a few at a time for it’s all she could lift, into the warm pot.

Oh, how the beans screeched! Oh, how sorry she felt for them. They were kind little beans, like napping babies, and she felt ever so terrible for waking them, only to plunge them in the boiling sup. But what else could she do? She was old, and poor, and the beans had been made good payment for the stitching she’d done that week for the parson up the road. They belonged to her, to do with what was best.

Ach, if only her hands were not so weak, she’d have gotten it over and done with sooner. But a lilt of the spoon, a few beans at a time, was the most she could muster. She took some consolation in naming each bean as she ladled it into its doom.

This one is Ben, she crooned, Old Ben, for his chin looks much like my long-gone father’s.

This one is Terrence, like the neighbor’s little dog. See how it curls, like Terrence’s tail!

This one is Margaret, for I always liked that name, and ne’er had one to give it to.

It occurred to her, halfway through, that the naming of each bean only drew out its death ballet for longer, and that the beans may have already had their own names for themselves. Nonetheless, it brought her comfort, and so she kept along at it until the pot was full, and their sighs had quieted.

Cate Fricke
May 2014

Thoughts on “The Straw, the Coal, and the Bean”

Another trickster tale akin to “Riffraff”, “The Straw, the Coal, and the Bean” is pretty silly.

An old woman lights a fire, using straw as her kindling, to make a pot of beans for supper. One coal jumps out of the grate, one straw falls to the floor, and one bean spills from the pot. They chat briefly about how they all narrowly escaped certain death, and decide to make their way together in the world “like good comrades.”

Presently they come to a brook. The straw stretches itself across so the others can pass, and the coal is the first to walk over. But he gets frightened by the stream, stops, and burns through the straw. The straw snaps, sending them both into the water. The bean, still on shore, laughs and laughs until its sides split. “Now, it would have been all over for the bean were it not for a traveling tailor” who stitches the bean back up again with black thread. This, the Grimms tell us, is why beans have a black seam running up their middle.

It’s also, they imply, why one should never decide to be “good comrades” with anyone, because their empathy towards others and willingness to help (a la the straw laying itself across the brook) will only get you as good as dead. How German!

Seriously, what I find so funny about the comedic tales in Grimm is how they all seem to have the same message: help yourself, because being nice, unless it’s to little old ladies, will get you nowhere. Trickster tales in other cultures often end similarly to “The Straw, the Coal, and the Bean”, summing up the story as an explanation as to how something commonplace in the world came to be, as a result of some humorous happening. But in, say, Coyote or Anansi tales, the heroes may be tricksters, but they have worldly knowledge or some endearing quality, even if it’s their joy. But the bean, well. He’s just a dick.

Read the full tale as translated by D. L. Ashliman, available at Pitt.edu, and read my freewrite in response to this tale here.

illustration by Walter Crane

illustration by Walter Crane